Will They Chase the Chase?

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Revisions Being Pondered as NASCAR Tries to Regain Momentum

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series at Kansas Speedway, October 2010.

As mid-October arrived, temperatures cooled and NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup began, major-league stock car racing seemed unsettled and perplexed. The sport that seemed forever growing had ground to something of a halt.

Jimmie Johnson seemed headed for a fifth consecutive championship, which would extend a record he set the previous year. The mastery of Johnson, crew chief Chad Knaus and owner Rick Hendrick might as well have been a slap in the face to all the NASCAR operatives proclaiming that the sport was more competitive than ever before.

The slump in attendance and television ratings continued as the Chase bumped up against the immoveable object known in America as the National Football League. Nothing – not double-file restarts, not so-called “wave-arounds” designed to restore cars to the lead lap, not multiple “green-white-checkered” finishes – seemed to work.

Hmm. What else could be changed? What about the Chase?NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France.

During remarks in July, NASCAR chairman and chief executive officer Brian France began his remarks on the subject by saying, “Not changing the Chase is definitely a viable option.”

Not exactly a ringing endorsement.

France went on to say, “… Regarding the options that we have on the table, there’s no question that the only ones we would consider are ones that make winning at a given moment more important than they are today.

“How do you do that? Well, there’s obviously a number of ways to do that. It comes with some version, as you go along, where certain races in the Chase, you have to win, you have to win or do very, very well to, in fact, move on.”

What France was hinting at was some sort of elimination process. The Chase, first implemented in 2004 and amended in 2007, consists of the final 10 races of the season. Originally, 10 drivers made up the field. Now it’s a dozen. At present, the top 12 drivers are equalized, each receiving a base of 5,000 points, and then seeded on the basis of victories during the first 26 races, which comprise the regular season.

Since he made those remarks, France has been mainly quiet, creating the impression that he and other high-ranking NASCAR officials are assessing the reaction to possible changes.

No one has spoken, at least on the record, about a specific plan, but it might involve eliminating a portion of the field at the halfway point, then perhaps creating some process whereby the final race would come down to two drivers, evenly matched, with the championship on the line.

“The only thing I would say is when you peel that back and look at it, it’s not that different,” said France in July. “It sort of forces that (narrowing of the field), like every other playoff and tournament kind of does.

“But the truth is, there are a lot of people eliminated from the Chase, not necessarily mathematically, but they would tell you, by the fifth race in, if you’re way, way behind, and you only have five races to catch up, you’re probably eliminated at that point. That’s no different. If we formalize that a little bit … that will be interesting.”

Among other proposals being bandied about: (1.) extending the field from 12 to 15, and (2.) adding more bonus points for winning, perhaps even assigning them in the Chase instead of as a seeding method at its beginning.

“If we have the perfect Chase that we would love to see, it would be just like every commissioner would tell you: They’d love to see great playoff events, as many game-seven series as possible. When they get to either game seven or the final of the NCAA tournament, the Super Bowl, whatever the sporting event, they’re going to tell you it’s an action-packed, close game, lots of story lines. That’s what they’re after. I mean, that’s what anybody is after,” said France. “We’re no different. If we can have our format be more consistent with delivering those results, and still have the flavor of NASCAR … we’ll weigh all that, figure that out, sort the right format.

“The truth is, whatever we do is not going to be all that much different in terms of every formula we’ve run, Jimmie Johnson would win anyway. Winning and being the best, we’re going to balance that out correctly.”

Tony Stewart (left) trusts NASCAR's braintrust will make the right decisions regarding the Chase. Kevin Harvick (left) and Stewart leading at Kansas.

Ah, the Johnson problem. Some have suggested that much of the Great NASCAR Slump – which has sort of gradually intensified almost since the Chase was born in 2004 – relates to two drivers: Johnson, who has won four straight championships, and Dale Earnhardt Jr., the most popular driver in the sport, who has notably not. Since joining Hendrick Motorsports in 2008, Earnhardt has won one race and failed to make the Chase twice in three tries. Johnson had, as these words were written, won 20 races over the three-year period.

It was said, in 2003, that the Chase came about because Matt Kenseth won the championship that year and won only once. Could it be changed this time because Johnson just wins too much? Johnson prefers to think not.

“Maybe I’m foolish, but I don’t think it has anything to do with me,” he said. “I think it has everything to do with NASCAR trying to create the best product that they can, trying to be in front of the right audiences, the right time of the year for certain race tracks so the stands are full, action-packed tracks for the Chase so our television numbers are up. I don’t see it has anything to do with me.”

He sounded as if he got all the talking points in.

In point of fact, France has more than Johnson to worry about. The general consensus among the drivers is they like it the way it is. There’s no uprising in the works. They all go to great lengths to preface or close their remarks by stipulating that NASCAR knows best and they will abide by any changes.

Every year it seems the Chase inevitably belongs to Johnson. He’s won 19 races since the format began in 2004 and has 4 championships.

Tony Stewart, who won the 2005 championship without winning any of the 10 Chase events, has evolved into an unconditional ally of the ruling body.

“You have to remember these guys have built this sport over the last 60-plus years because they’re smart and have good people around them who are smart,” said Stewart. “Guys like myself, we don’t worry about it, because there’s someone else thinking a lot deeper than we are. It doesn’t matter to us. As long as we know what the format is, then we know what we have to do to win it.”

“I think they’re floating ideas, and there are probably lots of them on the table,” said Greg Biffle. “There are several ideas of ‘how do we ramp up the excitement a little bit?’

Biffle was referring to an elimination process. “At first I thought, ‘Well, that’s dumb because you’re going to put the champion in one race.’ … But does it really matter? The best cars are going to win the races and the championships, so, under those ideas, I think that it could work.”

Of course, not everyone likes the Chase, whether it be the original, the current or the future. The format in all its forms is designed for excitement, not fairness. It lessens the relevance of the first 26 races, when the onus is on being in the top 12, not being the best. Under the format, Kevin Harvick led this year’s point standings by 228 points at the end of the regular season … at least until the standings were reconfigured for the Chase with Johnson, who was tied for fifth, and Hamlin ahead of Harvick by 30 and ahead of the five winless (at the time) drivers by 60.

Stewart took the win in the fall race at Fontana. Jimmie Johnson doesn't care which point system NASCAR uses to crown its champion. Carl Edwards has 6 career Chase wins and is still searching for his first Cup title.

Why should that 228-point edge, built over the course of 26 races, be relatively … irrelevant? Because, in NASCAR’s opinion, it would make the Chase B-O-R-I-N-G.

In a sense, the Chase is a response to what NASCAR considers a short attention span by both stock car racing fans and the sporting public in general.

“Let’s face it,” said Biffle. “I think, in the last five to seven years, the reality-based TV shows of everything we see on TV – it started out with ‘Survivor’ – people want to see dramatized, real-life things play out. We’re hungry for that. ‘The Bachelor.’ ‘The Bachelorette.’ All of this drama … what’s going to happen next? You want to make it exciting and interesting. It has to be, so that’s part of it, I think.

“People don’t want to see the same old thing. I think a lot of people don’t like to see change, but then when you do change you’re, like, ‘Oh, that’s pretty good.’”

Loyalty aside, though, most drivers really don’t want to see the Chase change. This creates something of a secondary scenario, the ‘save the Chase’ scenario.Biffle thinks the pressure to make changes to the Chase format is a reflection of the shifting trends in American pop culture.

“I think, if we can go out and have a battle like it looks like we’re going to have, then I think it will make a difference in whether we change it,” said a hopeful Carl Edwards. “I think NASCAR is in a tough position, PR-wise, to change it now. If they don’t change it right away, then do it later, it looks like a reaction to something that may happen in this Chase, which I don’t think they would do.”

Hah! Ask Matt Kenseth.

Four races into the current Chase, and 64 into the format in its various forms, Johnson had won four straight (out of a possible six) titles and 19 races. Only one other driver, Biffle, had won as many as seven.

“I don’t care what the point system is, how many drivers, what tracks, I will show up and do everything I can to try to win the championship,” said Johnson. “I couldn’t care less. Whatever the scenario is, I’ll race it, and I feel like our team is strong enough to be competitive in any format.”

There is one final consideration. NASCAR has undergone a dizzying array of changes in the past decade: a new championship format and one major round of amendments, a new car design, schedule shifts and rule changes designed to make the racing better in ways that some would deem artificial.

Perhaps the problem is that the sport is changing too rapidly for its fans to keep up. Perhaps some stability is in order. NASCAR seems to have totally eliminated that possibility from its considerations.

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